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Refugees reloaded

Marina Martinovic / jsFebruary 2, 2016

20 years ago, war forced some 350,000 refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina to flee to Germany. Today, many more war refugees are arriving, but policies toward them remain the same.

Bosnienkrieg 1993
Image: picture alliance/AP Images

The current refugee situation is nothing new for Germany. Similar - if not exactly the same - debates were argued 20 years ago. After uttering and repeating her oft-cited mantra, "We can do it," Chancellor Merkel began to walk back on her statement a few days ago, saying that Germany is providing most refugees with temporary protection and that she expects Syrian and Iraqi refugees to return home when the war is over.

Refugees as 'temporary guests'

This problematic debate comes at an inopportune time, and reminds one of the 90s after the Bosnian War, says Bernd Mesovic, deputy director of the German human rights organization Pro Asyl, speaking of Merkel's comments. Mesovic emphasizes that the current debate endangers the chartered rights of refugees to be recognized as such, and instead degrade them to the status of "temporary guests" - as was the case with refugees from former Yugoslavia. This does not facilitate integration. "Germany acted differently than other European countries at the time. Bosnian refugees, with few exceptions, were denied refugee status and were instead given temporary protection status. The ink was barely dry on the 1995 Dayton Peace Accord when they were told, 'so you were under protection, now there is peace, get on back home as soon as possible,'" remembers Mesovic.

And things happened as soon as possible because each refugee entering the country was clearly informed that German policy was that they would be "officially tolerated" during their stay, nothing more. By autumn 1998, 250,000 of the 350,000 Bosnians that had come to Germany had left, according to a progress report prepared by then Commissioner for Refugees, Dietmar Schlee, and presented in September of that year. This exodus was based on an agreement on incremental repatriations signed by Germany and Bosnia-Herzegovina in late 1996.

Bosnien Soldaten Bosnienkrieg Flüchtlingslager
Bosnian refugees in the 1990s peer out of makeshift housing at the Bosnia-Croatian borderImage: picture-alliance/dpa/epa

'Second banishment'

Bernd Mesovic says that the German government could learn from the mistakes it made at the time. Back then, he says, no one checked to see if individuals had been persecuted, tortured or raped. So much pressure was put on these people to leave that they often had no choice but to emigrate to third countries. Most no longer had a home to return to in Bosnia, and felt unsafe in the country after the war. Mesovic finds it shameful the USA and Canada offered these people a chance to start a new life, rather than Germany and the other European countries. Mesovic recalls that at the time many Bosnians said that it was like a "second banishment."

Despite the total lack of any chance of putting down roots, many Bosnians were well integrated in German society by the end of their stay. Many refugees had relatives or friends who vouched for them, who took them into their homes, even found them jobs. Their children went to school, and in most cases quickly learned German.

"If, in the end, one would have avoided the pain that gripped the tens of thousands that emigrated to America between 1996 and 1999, and the many who were stuck here with traumatic illnesses, the torture victims, then I would say that the integration would have been a success. However, the wrangling over people who were still supposed to repatriate pushed some of them into difficult psychological situations. And I think it is they who were the victims of those policies," says Mesovic, emphasizing that is important to avoid creating exactly the same kind of victims among refugees from Syria and Iraq.

Kroatien Offensive Krajina
Croatian Serb refugees in the 1990s flock to a refugee camp near Banja Luka in BosniaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Stankovic

From refugee to model immigrant

If peace ever returns to those regions, Bernd Mesovic believes that many refugees will return home, as was the case with the former Yugoslavia. However, he says that there will no doubt be many who have every reason to think twice before returning to a place where they might be persecuted, or even tortured. Nevertheless, the future is uncertain, and that is why it is important to pursue integration as quickly as possible. By doing so, one could avoid the detour that many former Yugoslavian refugees have been forced to take because of the mistakes made by German politicians in the 1990s: Many of the children that came here at the time, that learned such good German and spent their formative years here, have returned to Germany as students, highly-qualified engineers or medical specialists in recent years - the kind of model immigrants that Berlin so desperately wants.